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Home > Health Hazards & Infectious Diseases > Food and Water > Swimmer's Itch

Swimmer's Itch

Swimmer's Itch

What is swimmer’s itch?

Swimmer’s itch, also called cercarial dermatitis, is a skin rash caused by microscopic parasites found in some freshwater lakes and rivers. The parasites rely on birds—usually ducks and geese—aquatic mammals like muskrats and beaver, and snails to complete their life cycle. The eggs of the parasites are released into the water in the feces of infected birds. Once in the water the eggs hatch into free-swimming larvae that then infect certain types of snails. The larvae released from the snails can penetrate human skin causing temporary skin irritation. The parasite’s preferred host is a bird or aquatic mammal. However, if the parasite comes into contact with a swimmer, it burrows into the skin causing an allergic reaction and rash. Since people are not the normal host, the larvae remain in the skin and die.

What are the signs and symptoms of swimmer’s itch?

Within minutes to days after swimming in contaminated water, you may experience tingling, burning, or itching of the skin. Small reddish pimples appear within 12 hours. Pimples may develop into small blisters. Scratching the areas may result in secondary bacterial infections. Itching may last up to a week or more, but will gradually go away.

What can I do to avoid swimmer’s itch?

  • Vigorously towel dry or shower immediately after coming out of the water because the larvae do not penetrate the skin until the water evaporates.
  • Avoid, if possible, shallow water as the parasite is usually concentrated in shallow areas.
  • Do not swim near or wade in marshy areas where snails are commonly found.
  • Do not attract birds (by feeding them) to areas where people are swimming.

What can I do if I have swimmer’s itch?
Most cases of swimmer’s itch do not need medical attention. If you have a rash, you may try the following to ease the itching:

  • Use a corticosteroid cream or take antihistamine medication. You may wish to consult your health care provider or local pharmacist.
  • Apply a cool compress to the affected areas.
  • Bathe in Epsom salts or ½ cup of baking soda.
  • Soak in colloidal oatmeal baths.
  • Apply a baking soda paste to the rash (made by stirring water into baking soda until it reaches a paste-like consistency).
  • Use an anti-itch lotion.

Try not to scratch the affected area. Scratching may cause the rash to become infected. If itching is severe, your health care provider may suggest prescription-strength lotions or creams to lessen your symptoms.

Can swimmer’s itch be spread from person-to-person?

Swimmer’s itch is not contagious and cannot be spread from one person to another.

Please note: swimmer’s itch is not considered a public health risk. We provide this information so that you may prevent exposure to the itch. For more information, please contact the Sudbury & District Health Unit at (705) 522-9200, ext. 464.


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